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Tuberculosis: Answers to Your Questions


Wednesday, March 4, 2009
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More than a century ago a German doctor, Robert Koch, announced that he had discovered the germ that causes tuberculosis (TB) a finding that resulted in a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Every year on March 24 health care professionals commemorate World TB Day to celebrate Dr. Koch’s findings and to describe problems and solutions related to the TB pandemic and to support worldwide TB-control efforts.

TB is a disease caused by a bacteria (germ) called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. A serious and sometimes fatal disease TB can be cured with the right medicine.

Usually TB germs attack the lungs, but can also attack other parts of the body, including the brain, bones, kidneys, throat, and lymph nodes.

Phases of Tuberculosis

A latent TB infection occurs when TB germs get into a person’s lungs, the body makes the TB germs “go to sleep” by building a wall around them.

People with latent TB infection can take medicine to kill the TB germs before they “wake up” and cause active TB disease. If they don’t take medicine, they have about a 1 in 10 chance of getting active TB disease.

An active TB infection then occurs when the TB germs “wake up” and the wall around them breaks. The germs keep growing, spreading, and causing damage to the body until a patient is properly medicated.

People with active TB disease can get very sick and spread TB germs to others. Symptoms include a cough that lasts three or more weeks, coughing up blood, pain in the chest, weight loss, fever, chills, night sweats, or fatigue. .

The Spread of the Tuberculosis Germs

TB is spread through the air. When someone with active TB disease in their lungs coughs, sneezes, or talks, TB germs can get into the air. Other people close to them then breathe the TB germs into their lungs. Only people with active TB disease in their lungs can spread TB germs.

A person with active TB disease is most likely to spread TB germs to people who spend a lot of time near them.

You can’t get TB from shaking hands, hugging, sharing food, towels, or other objects, or quick, casual contact, like passing someone on the street.

Who gets TB?

Anyone can get TB because TB is spread through the air. However, elders, young children, and people with diabetes, HIV, cancer, and other health problems are more likely to get an active TB infection

About 2 billion people (one-third of the people living in the world) have latent TB infection. About 8 million people get active TB disease every year and 2 million people die from TB every year!

Although people with TB live all over the world, it is most common in Asia, Africa, and Mexico, Central and South America.

Do people in Minnesota get TB?

Yes. Each year, more than 200 people are diagnosed with active TB disease. For many immigrants who have moved to the US from countries with high TB rates, it is possible to have a latent TB infection.
Minnesota’s county and state local public health agencies work together to help people with TB get well. TB medication is free of cost to anyone who lives in Minnesota.

You should be tested for TB if you have spent time with someone who had active TB disease, have HIV infection or other conditions that weaken your immune system, are from a part of the world where TB is common, are a health care provider, or if you inject illegal drugs.

For more information
Contact your doctor or healthcare provider.

The Minnesota Department of Health has fact sheets about TB in English and 13 other languages including Amharic, Arabic, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Hmong, KaRen, Khmer, Laotian, Oromo, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tibetan, and Vietnamese. Fact sheets are available at: www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/tb/brochures.html.

Sara Chute works with the Refugee Health Program at the MN Department of Health. This article is part of an ongoing series of health education articles for refugee communities.  Special thanks to the Tuberculosis Prevention and Control Program at the Minnesota Department of Health for their help in writing this article.

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